Style Over Substance: In Defense of Nicholas Winding Refn

Most people love Drive (2011). It seemed to be the one movie where Nicholas Winding Refn’s choices as a director seemed to click with people. Refn’s two follow-up films, Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016) on the other hand, have been met with a much more mixed reception. Refn’s directing style is heavily visual while dialogue is delivered in a much more dry or awkward manner, creating a beautifully deformed version of Bangkok and Los Angeles where these films exist in. Refn is one of my favorite directors currently working because of his unique approach to film-making compared to other artists of this decade. His use of sound and color makes the cinematography of his films look beautiful but they are also symbolic and not just merely eye candy.

When Only God Forgives was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, it was booed by the audience. When the film was actually released theatrically, it created some of the most strongly mixed reception from both sides in recent memory. Some hailed it as masterpiece, while others called it one of the worst films they had ever seen. Many dismissed the film as too abstract and too heavily stylized. But under the surface, the story Only God Forgives tells us is an allegorical revenge film where the vibrant color and cinematography help tell the story as well as enhance the experience. The dislike of this film can still be understood as the acting could turn people off from it, but it is a movie that should be viewed again before dismissing entirely.

Refn’s The Neon Demon, a satire of the fashion industry, is one of my favorite films to have been released in recent memory. The way that Cliff Martinez’s eerie soundtrack fits the film’s display of the fashion industry, the perfect lighting and cinematography, and on top of that, Elle Fanning’s mesmerizing performance as Jesse, the aspiring young model. While not as polarized in reception as Only God Forgives was, it still sits at a 51 on Metacritic, nearly right in the middle. Wooden and blank performances seem to be criticized in The Neon Demon too, but it could also be seen as playing of the shallowness of the people in the industry.

Like it is said in writing, if you know the rules you can break the rules. This can also apply to Refn’s style of film-making. NWR proves that through excellent direction, you can tell stories in an interesting and unconventional way while not adhering to standard practices in the industry.

A Series of Down Endings: Losing in Film

The cliché of the underdog coming from behind and winning the “big game” has been repeated countless amounts of times. Air Bud (Smith, 1997) and numerous other films fall into this trap of giving viewers they ending they want rather than the one that is more grounded in reality. The Bad News Bears (Ritchie, 1976) is the motion picture that decides to deflect genre conventions and has the main characters lose their championship game, benefitting the film rather than making it disposable entertainment.

The plot of The Bad News Bears is already quite far fetched and, by having the Bears win at the end, it makes for an even more unlikely plot. A team of outcasts, who do not even know the mechanics of baseball should not be able to win the championship game let alone even make it to the playoffs. Once the Bears hit their stride, the continue to win and win, until the rug is pulled out under the audience’s feet when the Bears lose the championship game. Richard Linklater’s 2003 film School of Rock seems to mirror many of the plot devices used in The Bad News Bears. Dewey Finn (Jack Black) and his band made of middle school kids lose the battle of the bands at the end of the movie but grow from the experience just like Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) and his players do from losing their championship game. The importance of the characters losing in these films has more to do with how people evolve personally from losing which lasts a lifetime, rather than obtaining a trophy or cash prize, which is a temporary reward.

Beloved characters losing is something that is rarely ever seen even in horror movies, one character almost always survives. But when it does happen, it gives it a larger sense of importance, even reflective of our own real world.

I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings.” – Dante Hicks, Clerks 

Ang Lee’s Hulk, A Different Kind of Superhero Movie

In a world where most superhero movies are disposable entertainment like many of the comic books the characters spawned from, one movie happens to be even more erased from most of the public’s memory. Ang Lee decided to try something different with the superhero genre, with Hulk (2003). Lee was given over 130 million dollars and creative freedom from Universal to pretty much do anything he wanted and what we got was a flawed masterpiece that definitely requires another viewing.

What puts the movie above other superhero films is Bruce Banner’s (Eric Bana) inner struggle to control his anger as the main plot of the story. Lee used influences such as Beauty and the Beast, King Kong, Jekyll and Hyde, and Greek Mythology. And used his references to craft a think piece about the struggle between man and monster. The film explores the character of Hulk as being the repressed memories of Bruce. Showing that both Bruce and The Hulk disliked each other and wanted to completely take over the other’s body. In a very pivotal dream sequence in the movie, the Hulk grabs Bruce in the bathroom and snarks “puny human”, representing the struggles of both characters. Bruce even states that he when he loses control and the Hulk takes over he “likes it” but at the same time wants the monster in him to be destroyed.

Hulk also includes two villains who can be seen as parallels to each other, General Ross (Sam Elliot) and Bruce’s father, Doctor David Banner (Nick Nolte). General Thunderbolt Ross has motives for containing Bruce and is not completely one dimensional and unlikable. He wants to protect his estranged daughter, Betty (Jennifer Connely) (Bruce’s ex-girlfriend) and knows about his dark past and bottled up emotions after witnessing the death of his mother. However, Ross really wishes to use Bruce’s DNA to create a super soldier serum. David Banner is the first villain introduced in the movie. He is a military scientist working to create super soldiers. He is denied to do experiments with the serum on humans so he begins to test it on himself instead he then discovers that his child, Bruce has inherited some the effects of the serum and works to cure the disease. After being found out that he experimented on a human, he is then forced to stop his experiments and attempts to kill Bruce, accidentally killing his wife instead. This makes David Banner a tragic character as he is a man that was corrupted and destroyed his family due to his thirst for power. Another reason to have David Banner be in the movie is to have the father and son relationship which is important as it shows the repressed emotions Bruce has held onto and tries to forget about and ignore in his mind. Because Bruce’s transformation is because of his father, we see the villain create the hero in this case. Rather than the other way around in most stories. Both General Ross and Dr. David Banner can be seen as parallels because both of them do not really love their children and are simply using them to obtain the power they want so badly.

Danny Elfman’s score is terrific and that Hulk main theme is something that is so easy to hum without even knowing.  Just like all good scores it is a perfect fit to the movie that stands out when it needs to. It also makes terrific music to listen to by itself.

The real reason why people detest this movie so much is probably because of the editing and the CGI. Lee used quick cuts and split-screen to keep viewers interested and to many, it came off as weird and gimmicky. But after re watching it, the cuts are actually fit to the tone of the movie. The editing is crazy, just like the Hulk. It is also used to build tension in certain scenes. As far as the CGI goes, it is pretty terrible. But that is not the main point of the movie. Lee wanted Hulk to be more about the story rather than effects. They still manage to do some great action scenes with the CGI however, like the desert fight scene. Which is one of the best scenes in the film.

Please give this film another look. There seems to be a bandwagon to dislike this movie without much merit and without giving it an honest objective look. Ang Lee did a good job directing a movie that if fixed in a few ways could have been much more respected by people and should be more respected now as well.